Many police reforms being called for are nothing new, sheriff says

Deputies with the Island County Sheriff’s Office spent last Tuesday afternoon learning how to use different tools of force, from pepper spray to projectiles with spongey tips.

Those in charge of the live-action training scenarios focused on details people outside of law enforcement might not think about, like where a deputy should place his or her knees when handcuffing someone on the ground, and how to avoid confusion between a taser and a handgun during a high-adrenaline moment.

The decision to focus the session on the use of force had been set before George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, but it obviously turned out to be relevant to the national discussion going on. Sheriff Rick Felici said the department’s policies and training have long matched most of the reforms that are currently being called for nationally.

“Some of the changes have been driven by state law, some by federal law, but most of it by common sense and decency,” he said.

While the policy manual is continually updated through Lexipole, training has been key, the sheriff said. Gone are the days when the sessions only consist of deputies standing and shooting at paper targets.

The department has quarterly training for both deputies and corrections deputies that cover a range of topics. Officials try to have at least one training session with live-actor scenarios each year and to include these types of scenarios into the other training sessions as much as possible, according to Detective Ed Wallace.

The department has special equipment to simulate reality as close as possible, from pepper spray that squirts perfumy water to special handguns that shoot chalk rounds.

“It completely changes the dynamics of the training when it feels like there’s a risk to you,” Felici said.

Evan Tingstad, the chief criminal deputy, said the live-action scenarios act as “stress inoculation” for deputies. If officers go through certain situations in controlled settings, it will be less stressful when it happens in the real world.

“They don’t automatically go to ‘condition black,’” he said.

Two of the key police reforms that activists have called for are de-escalation and the use of a continuum of force.

Felici, who started out as a patrol deputy, said learning to de-escalate situations is a vital tool — and is quickly learned in the field — for deputies who cover a wide area and often go to calls by themselves. Over the years, many deputies have talked upset people off of Deception Pass Bridge and out of barricaded houses.

“It means taking the time and having the patience to calm things down,” he said, explaining that calming a situation down can be as simple as using a certain tone of voice or relaxed body language.

Jose Briones, the jail commander, said sometimes it’s best for a deputy to just walk away. If a violent person comes into the jail, sometimes they pause the booking process and offer the person a shower or let him have a “time out” in a holding room.

But since it may not come natural to everyone, the department has held de-escalation training before it was required by Initiative 940.

Wallace said the reports of use of force by deputies decreased significantly from 2017 to 2019, but it’s hard to draw concrete conclusions from the numbers since each report signifies a deputy used force, not necessarily a separate incident. Patrol deputies reported 45 uses of force in 2017 and six at the jail; in 2019, there was 29 reports from patrol deputies and one in the jail.

Wallace said a lot of different factors could affect the numbers, but de-escalation training likely made some difference.

Two deputies shot and killed suspects in 2017 and 2018 after many years in which the department had no officer-involved shootings.

The cases were investigated by an outside agency and reviewed by the county prosecutor, who found that the shootings were justified.

Felici said the concept of a continuum of force is nothing new. The idea is that the type of force used by an officer escalates as the situation does.

The first step may not be force at all but just “officer presence,” which the sheriff said resolves a lot of situations. Other steps may involve directing an individual with a hand on the shoulder, arms holds, the use of pepper spray, tasering, and deadly force, with many different options in between.

The sheriff said it’s a valuable model but not always practical in rapidly changing, real-world situations.

“The truth is, we may skip a few rungs,” he said.

The recent training sessions covered several non-lethal or less-lethal options on the continuum, although the department has found that deputies are using them less and less.

Detective Chris Peabody discussed different types of pepper spray devices, how best to use them and when not to use them — like inside a patrol car or next to the ventilation system in an ER.

“What’s important is knowing what you’re going to say and saying the same thing over and over,” he said, “or you’re going to end up saying some very strange things.”

The deputies then practiced a scenario in which they had to spray actors pretending to be unruly suspects and handcuff them on the ground. Don’t put your knee on the suspect’s neck, they were told.

They also discussed rules about tasers that have evolved from real-world experiences. A taser, for example, should not be held in an officer’s “strong hand” or be holstered on that side of their body to avoid mixing it up with a gun.

The deputies also practiced with one of the department’s 40mm launchers, which shoots large sponge-tipped projectiles that are usually aimed at a person’s thigh. Using shells equipped with paintballs, they shot a pacing actor outfitted in a protective suit and then had to quickly reload as he suddenly came at them.

In recent memory, the launchers have only been used once by patrol, once by SWAT and once in the jail, a trainer said.

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